The Supreme Court Is Taking On Unions: What You Need To Know
Image Credits: Flickr by Phil Roeder
Anyone looking toward a career in government should understand how an upcoming Supreme Court decision will affect their workplace. Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees(AFSCME), Council 21 was argued before the Supreme Court in February. A ruling is expected to be issued any day now. This case will alter how individuals handle labor union membership. Here are some things every government employee should know regarding the upcoming decision:
Mark Janus was a Department of Healthcare and Family Services employee who became frustrated with the $45 in dues taken out of his paycheck each month. Despite not being a member of the AFSCME labor union, Janus was required to pay dues, thanks to the 1977 Supreme Court case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. Under Abood, the Supreme Court ruled that employees can be required to play a fee to cover union costs for services that benefit all employees- like negotiating group contracts, called collective bargaining. These fees are often called agency fees. Janus argued this fee is “unworkable.” Why? Because it is impossible to determine which union resources are devoted to collective bargaining. This would cause him, a nonmember, to pay for union functions that he does not agree with.
The Abood ruling has been heavily contested in recent years. The 2014 Supreme Court case Harris v. Quinn exempted some health care employees from paying union dues, but took a narrow approach to the law. The Supreme Court decided to take up the issue again in 2016, but just weeks after oral arguments were made, Justice Antonin Scalia passed. Justice Scalia’s death left the court in a 4-4 deadlock. Once again, preventing a precedent against Abood from being established.
The issue of union membership and dues collection is often split on a partisan line; liberal Justices tend to believe everyone ought to be required to pay dues so no “free riders” receive union benefits without having to pay dues. Conservatives tend to believe forcing an individual to pay dues for a union they do not wish to be a part of is a violation of the employee’s freedoms. With Neil Gorsuch seated on the Court, many legal experts predict a 5-4 decision in favor of Janus.
State and local unions
The foreseeable impact of the Janus decision is the end of mandated state and local union dues payments. If Janus is decided the way it is expected, employees will have the option to opt out of paying agency fees like the ones taken out of Janus’ paycheck automatically.
Currently, 28 states and Guam have Right to Work laws in place that give worker this option. A ruling in favor of Janus will effectively universalize these policies, allowing all workers the “right to work” without union dues.
If you are a government employee who currently works in a Right to Work state, this ruling will do little to affect your workplace. It will only serve as a reminder that you can opt out of state and local union dues. If you are a government employee who currently works in a state without Right to Work laws, this ruling will provide you the opportunity to opt out of the dues you are currently paying.
History suggests that if Janus is decided against the unions, their primary funding and recruitment base will dissolve. In the three years following Wisconsin’s passage of Right to Work legislation, unions lost anywhere between 25 percent and 50 percent of their members. This resulte in $12 million in lost revenue, according to reports from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Conservatives argue this is a sign that workers do not actually want to be part of unions, and argue unions must work more effectively to maintain a membership base without government mandate. Unions currently represent over 7 million government employees, losing the Janus decision will inevitably diminish their capacity to continue such large scale operation unless they change their practices.
It is important to note that the Janus decision does not affect federal union dues collection, which employees can already opt out of. The Janus decision only affects dues payments for state and local government workers.
FindLaw, a legal news page run by Reuters, identifies four key areas of concern individuals should consider when determining if paying union dues are right for them:
Political affiliation: Labor unions often support Democratic causes and candidates. Despite a wide ranging membership base, by nature unions favor progressive policies that increase worker protections and regulate employer practices.
Religious stances: Large unions, such as the National Education Association, are known for endorsing both abortion and same-sex marriage. Many individuals claim it is a violation of their First Amendment rights to be forced to fund a union that supports causes against their religion.
Corruption concerns: Throughout union history there have been reports of embezzlement, corruption, racketeering, and wrongdoing within organizations. Many fear their money will not go toward collective bargaining, but instead, individual gain.
Personal preference: It is not unreasonable for an individual to feel their union dues are not worth their union membership. If an individual researches the union and feel it does not meet their needs, they should be able to cancel payments.
Janus v. AFSCME should provide clarity on long disputed questions surrounding union dues collection. All government employees should prepare for the Supreme Court’s ruling by determining their own union membership status and if the union that represents them is truly representing their interests.